Jimmy Westlake: Eridanus – a river of stars
Steamboat Springs — The hourglass shaped star pattern of Orion the Hunter is found nearly overhead at 8 p.m. in early February. With his bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, at his shoulder and foot, respectively, and the three stars in a row marking his belt, Orion forms one of the most recognizable star patterns in the entire sky.
It is to a little star just above Rigel that I would like to draw your attention. Despite its proximity to Rigel, this star does not belong to the constellation Orion but falls in the neighboring constellation of Eridanus, the River. The star is named Cursa, which derives from the Arabic words for “the foot stool,” because Orion seems to be stepping on it with his big foot, Rigel.
Cursa is the first bright star in a long, meandering stream of stars that represents the Po River in Italy.
The river was immortalized in the stars to console Helios, the mythological sun god of the Greeks, after his son Phaethon accidentally drove his fiery chariot too close to the Earth and caught it on fire. Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, had to shoot down the lad and his runaway chariot with a lightening bolt to spare the Earth. Phaethon’s body fell into the Po River, where his sisters wept tears that turned into drops of amber.
Overall, Eridanus is the sixth largest of the 88 constellations in our sky. To locate the celestial river, start with the star Cursa near Orion’s foot and connect the star dots toward the right, or west, tracing out an enormous backward letter “S.”
These meandering curves in the river are as large as Orion but composed of fainter stars. Eridanus then flows straight down below the southern horizon and out of our view.
Folks living farther south than latitude 32ºN get to see the bright star Achernar that shimmers as the pool at the end of the river. That’s roughly the latitude of Savannah, Georgia, Midland, Texas, and San Diego, California. The entire state of Colorado is too far north to get a glimpse of Achernar, the sky’s 10th brightest star.
Along the banks of the celestial river is a naked-eye star called Epsilon Eridani that lies only 10 light years from Earth. It is the closest single sun-like star to our solar system and, as such, has been used in science fiction stories as a home for extraterrestrial beings
It is suspected of hosting at least two planets of its own, however, planets orbiting Epsilon Eridani probably would not host intelligent life forms because of their youth. The star system appears to be a relatively young half a billion years old, compared to an estimated 4.6 billion year age for our solar system. The Earth’s fossil record suggests that it took life about one billion years to gain a foothold on our nascent world.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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It was a love story that brought Jason Erwin to Steamboat Springs from Nashville, Tennessee.